Some years ago, an aging businessman who had shot down 15 Nazi planes as a young World War II fighter pilot told me his stories for a Minnesota oral history of the 20th century. He had led a successful and eventful life after the war. But he admitted that it had all seemed “kind of slow most of the time” once one had experienced combat.
The estimable heroics of the “greatest generation” notwithstanding, American history might seem “slow” in spots without the Civil War. It is the grand, Shakespearean epic of our national life. It may be that keeping Burke’s sacred veil drawn over its villainies and resentments allows us more comfortably to embrace the story’s inspiring and romantic qualities.
There were of course many devastated psyches among Civil War veterans, much post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then, with their irrepressible ear for poetry, they called it “Soldier’s Heart.”
But the awful ambiguity of war — horrid and bewildering, thrilling and clarifying — inspired other poetic flourishes.
“I do not know the meaning of the universe,” said famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wounded three times on Civil War battlefields. Holmes would become one of the most influential skeptics and pragmatists of the dawning modern age. “Certitude leads to violence,” he said, arguing that the Civil War illustrated the danger of ever being sure one knew the total moral truth.
But for Holmes “the soldier’s faith” was always something different.
“But in the midst of doubt,” he said, “in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt ... and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands … under tactics of which he does not see the use.”
“We [soldiers] have shared the incommunicable experience of war,” Holmes added. “[W]e have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.”
No doubt Holmes was right in believing — as have so many other combat veterans before and since — that what he was talking about is ultimately “incommunicable” to those of us who haven’t been to war. But, however faintly, the “passion of life” comes through in Civil War stories, partly because Americans have chosen to remember the heroism more than the horror.
The heroism of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment at Gettysburg is remembered in a moving front-page Star Tribune story today. And it figures large in Richard Moe’s fine regimental history, “The Last Full Measure,” which he will discuss in a Minnesota History Center lecture Monday evening.
In his book, Moe quotes Gen. Winfield Hancock’s stunning tribute to the First Minnesota’s sacrificial charge at Gettysburg (which he ordered):
“There is no more gallant deed recorded in history,” Hancock said.
Surely that qualifies as having said it all.
A mighty scourge
There is, all this acknowledged, a more sorrowful ingredient in America’s Civil War reconciliation. In the postwar Reconstruction era, the triumphant North attempted for a time to impose a semblance of racial justice on the defeated South, ensuring basic rights for freed African-Americans.
Plagued by corruption, undermined by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, that effort failed and was abandoned, not least because the North, in the end, was little more prepared than the South for real racial equality.
It simply has to be admitted that America made peace with itself partly by making peace with the continuation of a white supremacy that changed little for another century.
It’s been noted that Reconstruction should have prepared America for the difficulties it has recently confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan. It showed how hard it is to use a military occupation to accelerate change in a traditional society, to establish peace and justice between majorities and minorities.
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